Saturday, November 28, 2009

Caed Mile Failte: Thankgiving Redone in a Good Way

As a note, I'm always cautious about writing on ceremony or events I'm aware of in Native circles for concerns of privacy and respect- but was encouraged to blog in this case by the organizer and other folks who planned to do the same. Wanted to share a few thoughts, and gratitude for how I was able to spend "Thanksgiving" this year.

Cead Mile Failte is Irish Gaelic, my ancestral tongue for 100,000 welcomes,* (an expression I learned courtesy of a gentleman in the Outdoor Church where I work), and has been on my heart since returning home this evening from an incredible weekend. The patient few who follow my blog may know by now I've been increasingly getting to know Boston's Native community in my work at Harvard Divinity School, and hope to eventually do some work in solidarity with the first peoples of this land I feel humbly blessed to grow up on. It has been, of course a challenging process, finding ways to serve which respect the boundaries and tensions injustices and racism have created between Native people and the wider culture. I am grateful for the many patient teachers I've had along the way, including many of the folks at the Center I describe below.

I first met Robert Peters, an artist and local member of the Mashpee Wampanoag (the local tribe who, incidentally were the people to keep the Pilgrims alive** so long ago) at the North American Indian Center (NAICOB) where I'd spent my summer internship.  I'd heard of his work which included, among other things a project teaching Native youth traditional home construction and the creation of art which dotted the Center's offices.  His family was very involved in the life of his tribe, his family moving there in the 70's to help lead the fight for their land rights.  Robert helped to open the sacred fire for this year's Powwow, creating a beautiful pit with the four-directions of his own tribe's medicine wheel in colored sand. We got to talking during my off-times working the grill at the Powwow, and I felt deeply welcomed as he shared stories about his art and people with me. I was really surprised, however when he casually asked me "why don't you come back tonight, we could use some help with the fire."  (I found out later he'd already been passed a few good words from my supervisor, an old friend)

Knowing fully what a special request this was, I agreed, and spent an incredible night camping out under the stars with members of his family and community. It was a little intimidating, I admit, approaching the fire that first time at night- I the white Christian guy who, though invited was coming in suddenly out of the dark in the inner-city to a trusted circle quite laden with a painful history of racism and injustice from my part of society- but this dissolved in seconds as I was warmly welcomed by his kids and family, heard stories of cultural and language preservation, and ask to share my story too. It was one of the most special nights of my life, sleeping out on the ceremonial ground of a place I'd spent my summer getting to know in more administrative ways. In some small way, too joining an act of resistance, camping out in one of the biggest cities on the East Coast, and affirming that these original ways of community and life still have so much to teach us today.

Robert and I stayed in touch, getting to know each other better at various events and Powwows, and he informed me there were plans to actually hold a special Thanksgiving program, a Healing Fire he'd begun within his tribal community, at NAICOB this year. This Wampanoag Medicine Fire actually began the year of September 11th as a way to honor ancestors and strengthen indigenous communities for the future in this new era of our nation. The fire has occurred every year since 2001, traveling to many of the tribes which remain (though often overlooked/without Federal standing) here in Massachusetts- often with Talking Circles on issues unique to their community. This year there would be two fires, one at its Mashpee birthplace, and one in Boston to welcome the city's large Native community and the work and history of NAICOB. I was invited again to come, this time to help out during the four day vigil and welcome people (as well as do a little publicity). I was humbled beyond words, but happy to help.

So I headed out for a "different sort of thanksgiving," bringing a tent and lots of rain-gear down to camp out in that field. Its a peaceful, if somewhat unussual site- sandwiched between a branch of the Greenline E-Train, and a small highway, though with a beautiful pond/park just below and a hill and fence masking the city traffic above. A sweeping willow and a ring of smaller trees hang over a playground and the ceremonial/Powwow grounds below, and various fire-rings and remains of past events have quietly faded into the grass. The place holds a great deal of history, and one can feel it there... almost 40 years of events public and more private for Boston's indigenous community. Painfully, however its days may be numbered- as the State of Massachusetts attempted to sell the entire site to fill its own coffers a few years back- predictably considering Boston's only Indian center the first to go. The Center just barely won a struggle for the building itself, but their beloved ceremonial grounds were sold to developers. They are grateful to still have permission to use it- and various obstacles seem to have delayed any "development"*** of the land, but it was hard to know the land we were using- land which spiritually if not on paper feels very much the property of generations of Native folks- could be bulldozed at any time. The Medicine Fire was held in this spirit- and awareness that this could be one of the last possible here.

I arrived Thursday morning just before dawn and was present for a simple circle that greeted the new day with new fire. A small, but surprising number of folks made it, and the willow tree exploded with birdsong, all at once halfway through the ceremony. It was really beautiful, sun over the lake and the world coming to life around us.

The rest of Thanksgiving day was peaceful and, thankfully devoid of rain until its end. People trickled in all day from family dinners, staying for a few hours or more to tend the fire and share stories and conversation. We heard from folks working at NAICOB, people just arrived in the city, and folks with hard stories from reservations up North in Canada (where, as one man put it many folks would "rather come here and be homeless but have something to do."). It was a fascinating experience, people simply coming and going, getting smudged with sacred sage or sweetgrass to enter the circle but with few formal expectations or demands beyond that. A sense of deep sacredness pervaded it, however, unspoken but real- and I was humbled at the intimacy and trust, as people shared their stories with old friends and new folks alike. Folks even gathered willow branches from a fallen tree partway through, and started making dream-catchers and other weavings around the fire, sharing local techniques and craft traditions.

The first night was rainy, and turned cold all of a sudden- though not as bad as it might be. We felt surprisingly "taken care of" as some winds seemed to be blowing heavier rains to the south away from us according to a community member with an internet/GPS connection.   As night and the mists fell, despite the noisy highway that never quite emptied even on that lazy thanksgiving night, a sense of enclosure and privacy still filled the area. This felt like a home, and holy ground and not much else out there mattered. A friend (a Mik'maq pastor who's also mentored me) came and stayed a long vigil so Robert and I could sleep some- praying deeply into the night and relishing the silence... the stories, and pictures he shared of that "thinness" around the fire with us later were very special... and I think I caught a hint of it in my dreams, a few feet away.

The next day was wet and cold, though I stayed for a grateful thanksgiving care package sent from Robert's family. Home to get some work done in hopes of staying the second night-- but quickly stressed at how much I had to do. Robert told me not to worry, simply come the next day if I could for the big Talking Circle, but this was when things got interesting.

I decided to turn in a little early, frustrated at how much was left and hoping to get up early to work in the morning too... but I couldn't sleep. My bed was too warm (ironic after a night of cold rain!). My mind too wired. Most of all the wind (or maybe a few spirits?) kept whistling against my window. Which was OPEN, but still not giving me any cool air. It was a beautiful, haunting sound, reminding me of the wind over that lake the night before, and was calling to me.

But most of all, it was the thought of folks still out there... folks who'd offered me such tremendous hospitality and trust, in a community that has every reason to hold such things in careful reserve. I knew they'd be ok without me, there was no guilt... but in the face of such gratitude, I could not spend the night indoors- no matter how wise it might be academically. So I snuck out at midnight, caught the last bus (with an extra quilt**** trailing behind me in the rain to bemused passengers), and surprised a few folk at the fire. "You're supposed to be studying" Robert said, amused. I just shrugged with a grin.

I made it back here eventually, in time to write half a paper after this blog post. Today was our most packed, though and it was wonderful to stay for the Circle. Lots of kids there... and I was able to share a little of my story- something I'd held back a bit out of desire to listen on other days, when it came to my turn. I summed it up in that Gaelic phrase above- 100,000 welcomes, as gratitude to this community for asking me to be a part of something so sacred. Something which, frankly should have been the fruits of thanksgiving the FIRST time. But humbled, most of all that a community which had endured so much injustice still carried a hospitality, and generosity that could put an Irishman to shame.

Abundance beyond words. I think the Irish sense for exaggeration even falls short, 388 years after that first mixed try at a Thanksgiving.

Caed Mile Failte- 100,000 welcomes. It doesn't quite cut it, but comes close.

*Expressions of this sort often spoke of infinity, or unfathomable abundance in the ancient world- 70 or 7x70 in the Hebraic/Semitic culture (Jesus' use for the # of times to forgive being the best-known), "10,000" shows up frequently in ancient Chinese and other East Asian texts. Never ones to be outdone, the Celts go all the way to 100,000 in common expression today.

**And, a generation be enslaved after a brutal war triggered by colonial greed, the side of the story most folks don't know.

***Development being a word laden with enough irony and contradiction to make one's ears bleed as anyone who knows my own activism in my community expects me to note. Land inhabited by century old trees, birds or animals is somehow lacking, and must be "completed" by cold iron, pavement and sterile desolation. The fact should not be overlooked that the same idea was applied to PEOPLE as an excuse to repeatedly depose "undeveloped" people from their ancestral birthright and create the country we live in today- leaving them the dregs of the bottle. Its continuing today, as the only formal site for Native culture and spiritual practice in the city of Boston is secondary to the State's need to cover up its inabilities to balance a budget justly.

****Let them stare... I ended up needing that quilt, durnit. :P

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